Saturday, February 13, 2010
On the weekend of Chinese New Year, the handful of blocks comprising Chinatown is quiet, populated by as many vagrants as tourists. At one point, a man pushing a baby stroller came alongside my son-in-law, who also was pushing a stroller with his one-year-old seated inside, and inexplicably showed him the switchblade he had stored in one of the stroller’s compartments.
“You should carry one just in case someone tries to snatch your kid,” he said, and he walked on.
We stop at the House of Louie so I can buy a couple of char siu bao, a steamed dumpling of barbecued pork in fluffy bread that I developed a taste for during two years in Hong Kong in the late 70s.They are good, but much leaner than the ones in Hong Kong. We stop and watch some Ping-Pong outside the restaurant and head into the center of Chinatown, which is, frankly, pretty grim.
“I think maybe next week,” he said.
He was equally uncertain when we asked whether he’d recommend eating an early dinner at the House of Louie.
“Well, I haven’t been there in two years,” he said. In other words, “don’t go.”
“The best (Chinese) restaurants are over on the east side” of the Willamette River, he added.
Still, we went to the nearly empty Golden Horse restaurant and the food was plentiful and good. But San Francisco this is not.
The one oasis is the Lan Su Chinese Garden, which takes up a full city block on the edge of Chinatown, surrounded by tallish buildings. While not as spectacular or expansive as the Portland Japanese Garden west of downtown, its attention to authentic detail is remarkable. It was a chilly February day and my family waited for me outside, so my time there was too short.
Sadly, much of the rest of Chinatown is in disrepair or for sale.
About 20 percent of the 40,000-square-foot garden is water, called Lake Zither (a type of zither called a guzheng is responsible for creating much of traditional Chinese music), mimicking ancient Chinese gardens of the Suzhou area. The structures inside the garden were built by workers from Suzhou.
In short, it’s strikingly beautiful and authentic, and strangely out of place in what otherwise appears to be a dying section of Portland.